Phyllis Furness - Centenarian Extraordinaire

Corrib News Summer issue 2015

Margaret Larminie

Corrib News Summer Issue 2015
Our congratulations and all very best wishes to Phyl on her 100th Birthday on 23 May 2015.
If ever anyone uniquely “did it my way”, it is Phyl. What’s more, she continues to do it her way, with her rich, warm voice (entirely free of the loss of resonance women’s aging voices are prone to), charming the birds off the trees and captivating her audience.

Born Phyllis Olwyn Ryder in Newark, Northampton, in 1915, she had one brother, two sisters and three step-sisters. Starting school at the age of five, she finished at 14 when this was a normal end to schooling. She made friends at school, but doesn’t feel she was in the least likely to be a teacher’s pet, as she says she picked and chose what subjects she would bother about and let the rest go by! Art and music were her two favourites. But when the drawing teacher brought in a plastic foot for the class to draw, she embellished her drawing with a corn or two, by which her teacher was not at all amused. She has a splendid portfolio of her drawings, accurate likenesses of famous people, done from photographs.


In 1973 she presented a portrait in oils of Queen Elizabeth to the Public Library, before they left Charmouth.
She loved her violin, despite being banished to the shed at the end of the yard’ by her father, when she was practising. But her lessons stopped when the money was. needed for her young brother’s piano lessons. When she was 18 she won 1st prize in a Viennese Waltz competition.
Her enquiring mind led her into reading and she feels that it was through books and living that she acquired most of her education.

Making clothes (including her own school uniform), knitting and crotchet were taught in her school, and laid down the foundation for all those wonderful Nativity Scenes, characterful animals and dolls, for which she has won many 1st prizes at the Oughterard Show. In August 2014 she won the Mrs Bridie Stewart Cup with her knitted mice not church ones, as hers were far too well dressed! She continues to knit and crotchet right up to this moment where she is keeping up with the many orders she receives. The proceeds from these she passes on to the Poor Claire Sisters (who are special friends to her) and to charities dealing with current global disasters.

Phyl was no stranger to the world of work from the time she was a child at school onwards. She moved to live with her step-sisters after she left school and through them found employment. One day her then boss asked her if she could cook. She said yes, but what for? It turned out that he had 150 dignitaries expected for a dinner the next evening and the chef had walked out. Having elicited her boss’s promise to help her she agreed. They drew up a menu and the dinner event went through without a hitch. As you can see, Phyl was never one to refuse a challenge a real Bring-it-on person.

To meet Phyl, you would take it that she had had a trouble-free, happy life. Yet there were many difficulties to be overcome. Phyl leaves these gently in the past, where, as she says, they belong. They moved house many times, which must also have been disruptive for friendships. When Phyl mentions any negative times, it is simply in a factual way, free from any self-pity or bitterness. It seems she simply expects herself to pick herself up and get on with it.
And get on with it she most certainly did. She was involved in war work in London during the Second World War and married John Furness in 1940.
Again, she experienced many home moves, all taken in her stride, no matter what! She and her husband had one son, Michael, born in 1942
When they were living in Christchurch. Dorset, Phyl was again able to find work, and it was here after doing voluntary work with the Red Cross that she applied for a job as manager of an older people’s Home. At the interview she was her usual honest self and agreed that she had no qualifications. They asked her how she thought she could do the job and she told them that she knew exactly how she would want to be treated if she needed care in her old age. She got the job and was sent to Christchurch Hospital for a week’s training. I can imagine what a happy and fun place it was for her charges. Phyl was by now an experienced jam-maker and, as now, loved growing her own vegetables and fruit. She describes one Christmas when she invited the local doctor and the postman to the Home on Christmas Day, treating them and all the residents to her homemade cakes and Applejack, a drink distilled from fermented apple juice. The Postman fell off his bike a few times on his way home, and the doctor I think was available only for emergencies for the rest of the day…
In 1981 Phyl’s husband, John, who already loved Ireland, bought a house in Glann when he was over on a fishing holiday. Phyl claims
that her life really came alive when she came to live here in Ireland. It was now that she dropped Olwyn from her signature as, much as she liked the feeling of being adopted by Ireland, she found she was being addressed as Mrs O’Furness. Her honesty, once again!
The house was out in the countryside in some isolation and a total change from her urban homes in England, including experience of bombs in London on the street where they lived.
Here in the Irish countryside, she could take her beloved Alsatian dog. Panda, for long walks in safety, though once Panda, off on his own, arrived home with a live lamb in his mouth. He wanted to play with it! Phyl eventually managed to separate him from the lamb, which was unharmed but ‘trembly’. She then had a job finding its owner!
Through Kilcummin Church of Ireland she made many friends. She and Barbara Edwards teamed up with Mary Rose Glynn, going to concerts and Music Hall type nights organised by the John Player group. Tops of the Town competitions were held throughout the country and she and Barbara and Mary Rose must certainly have been a class act’, taking part in many competitions and social evenings. Phyl is especially gifted in recitatives. Anyone who has heard her recite ‘Albert and the Lion’ won’t be surprised that she won an impressive Oscar for this in one of the John Player League’s competitions.
Her husband, John, died in 1984 and she moved to her present home by the waterfall in Oughterard in 1985. When she wasn’t en- gaged in her John Player escapades she set about cultivating her garden, making it ‘a lovesome thing for herself and her friends, and especially for the birds. Phyl is a keen observer and knows the foibles and characters of all the regular bird visitors to her garden. The greedy ones she does her best to put manners on, in no uncertain terms.

In 2012 came the immense loss of her gifted only son, Michael, after a long fight with cancer. Accepting that loss was probably the hardest thing in her life to have to face. Again, Phyl’s indomitable spirit and her strong faith carried her. The Nativity groups went on being produced, the garden was tended and the birds fed, as usual.

Her love of the funny side of things has always been there. My favourite example of it was when two women posing as social workers came into her house through the back door. She quickly marched them out the front door. But they went off with her handbag. When the Gardai came, one of them asked her hadn’t she got a panic button. “Of course I have”, she retorted, “but I wasn’t in a panic”. That’s Phyl for you.
May the sun shine happily on you, Phyl, as you celebrate your 100th birthday, and move into your brand new century, with the company of your granddaughter, Jackie (on a visit from Australia for your birthday) and your friends. What a role model you are for us, favourite chocaholic that you are!

This page was added on 18/02/2024.

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